“Yeh saaaara Gujarati area hai, poooora hum bhai logon ne banaya (It is all a Gujarati area, the whole thing was made by us),” says Imtiaz Ahmed Mamsa, as he drives me in his battered taxi through the side streets of downtown Yangon. “Woh bazaar, woh college, woh masjid…” he continues, waving his hand in a grand sweep at the teeming scenes before us, as if the whole Indian quarter was his family property. As we drive on to Strand Road, Imtiaz points to the staggeringly grand facade of a 100-year-old building that is soon to become a luxury hotel, and says with great pride, “Our weddings used to be held there”. When I look at him sceptically, he drags his mother into it. “Ammi says we were once so rich that even the marbles children played with were solid gold.”
As one of the grandest port cities of the East, Rangoon entered the annals of colonial literature as a place where Europeans lived exotic lives, carrying out the burdens of the Empire, shipping out Burmese teak, rice, rubies and oil by day and maintaining a diligent calendar of amusements by night. For the thakins and thakinmas of Rangoon, sahibs and memsahibs, the city was an endless parade of soirées at the Pegu Club and champagnes at the Strand Hotel, expat ghettoes that offered sanctuary from the steaming streets outside.
But, in fact, that satin world depended on the exertions of Indians, who provided the labour, and often the capital, too, to keep the cogs moving — as coolies in the docks, as workers in the rice mills, as rickshaw-pullers, stone-breakers, traders, as low-level bureaucrats, as fat-cat moneylenders, as engineers and entrepreneurs, even as policemen and sweepers. Rangoon had been proclaimed by the British as their own in 1853, but after 1885, when they overthrew the Burmese king and annexed the entire country to its empire, the city became, in essence, an Indian city — no different, administratively, from Bombay or Calcutta.
Imtiaz’s grandfather, a trader of cotton piece goods, had arrived from Variav, Surat, but between 1890 and 1930, Indians from all corners of the subcontinent were flocking to Rangoon, chasing the Burmese Dream. Burma was one of the richest provinces of the Empire, and the word on the street was there was a job for everyone, munificent wages, and no shortage of food. Where “rice grew of itself,” wrote Rudyard Kipling of this bounteous province in 1889, and “fish came up to be caught, putrefied and pickled.”
By 1931, there were more Indians in Rangoon than all other races, including the Burmese, combined. Rabindranath Tagore, visiting in 1916, observed: “Madrasis, Punjabis and Gujaratis are wandering about in the streets and on the river banks. In the midst of all this if somewhere suddenly one spots Burmese men or women dressed in silk, one imagines that they are the foreigners.”
This history, of India in Burma, is still vividly in evidence, if a bit tired-looking. As Imtiaz pointed out to me, there is no end to the number of “Soorty” mansions and “Soortee” offices and “Surti” mosques strewn across downtown Yangon. Equally ubiquitous are old Marwari homes; mithai shops no different from the ones you might find in any Indian city; “chitty hta min” restaurants that sell typical south Indian fare; shops that announce themselves as ‘India Fashion Tailoring (Saree, Pyjama, Top Blouse, Sherwani, Fancy Kurta)’; homes hung with Shubh Labh streamers; and countless churches, mosques, and temples that are named after one or the other Indian community that built them a 100-150 years ago. Even on markedly colonial streets like Pansodan and Merchant, which are adorned with colonnaded buildings better suited to 20th century London or Glasgow than to 21st century Yangon, some of the grandest structures bear an Indian imprint. The offices, for instance, of the Internal Revenue Department — a broad-chested building in neoclassical style — is still emblazoned with the words Rander House, after the original owners of that building, Sunni Vohras who came from Rander, Surat.
For an Indian visiting Yangon in 2018, this history can feel both thrilling and bitter. The constant sense of familiarity — taxi drivers who insist on conversing in Hindustani; the resonance-dissonance of flavours that are similar but not the same — samosas that are too flat, parathas that are called plata, chai made with condensed milk; etymological puzzles that reveal themselves to be clues to a common past (the “chitty” in the chitty hta min is a reference to the moneylending Chettiar community who used to live here) — all pulls you into an intimate embrace and makes you feel like you have returned to a place you were once from rather than a first-time visitor.
But it is not possible to ignore that Indians were ultimately resented and then rejected, resulting in their steady exodus and marginalisation. The same Imtiaz who reminisces to me about the gold and glitter of Indian lives in Rangoon is a second-class citizen in his own country today, teased by his Burmese friends as a “kala”, a word that used to simply mean “foreigner from the West” but over time has come to connote dark-skinned Muslims of South Asian appearance, a pejorative term that suggests he is ultimately an outsider. It is difficult to admire a city stamped with Indian handprints when the real legacy of India in Burma is the xenophobic moods that now mark Myanmar.
Abhijit Dutta is the author of Myanmar in the World: Journeys Through A Changing Burma.
The article appeared in the print edition with the headline: Once Upon a Time in Rangoon